“Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 2.43

Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.

In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.

In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision (2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.

Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:

Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 276

In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.

As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:

[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some  housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260

The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:

(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays 5.243

As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.

Except for the final, culminating revelation.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales. 

Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.

When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.

The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.

We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.

There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:

“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.

“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.

Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:

Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143

“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.

No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.
H. P. Lovecraft Collected Fiction A Variorum Edition Vol. 4: Revisions and Collaborations 298

The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

 

“The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

While visiting Magnolia, that beautiful, exclusive summer resort on the north shoe of Massachusetts, we often walked to Gloucester, which was a distance of about four miles. On our way we passed a beautiful esplanade. One evening while walking along this esplanade, the full moon reflecting its light in the water, a peculiar and unusual noise heard at a distance as of a loud snorting and grunting, the shimmering light forming a moon-path on the water, the round tops of the submerged piles in the water exposed a rope connecting them like a huge spider’s guy-line, gave the vivid imagination full play for an interesting weird tale. “Oh, Howard,” I exclaimed, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.” Said he, “Go ahead, and write it.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do it justice,” I answered. “Try it. Tell me what the scene pictures to your imagination.” And as we walked along we neared the edge of the water. Here I described my interpretation of the scene and the noises. His encouragement was so enthusiastic and sincere that when we parted for the night, i sat up and wrote the general outline which he later revised and edited. His continued enthusiasm the next day was so genuine and sincere that in appreciation I surprised and shocked him right then and there by kissing him. He was so flustered that he blushed, then he turned pale. When I chaffed him about it he said he had not been kissed since he was a very small child and that he was never kissed by any woman, not even by his mother or aunts, since he grew to manhood, and that he would probably never be kissed again. (But I fooled him.)
—Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft 19

Born Sonia Haft Shafirkin to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire (modern Ukraine), by the time that Lovecraft and Sonia met she had been living in the United States some 20 years, had married and outlived her first husband (Samuel Greene), and had an adult daughter (Carol Weld) from that union. Sonia was a successful, highly-paid milliner in New York City, and had gotten involved in amateur journalism. Lovecraft met her at an amateur press convention in 1921, shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and the two began a correspondence which turned into a rather surprising courtship-in-letters. They would marry quickly and unexpected in 1924…but before that, they wrote this tale together.

There is no reason to doubt Sonia’s own account of the story’s genesis, and this makes it difficult to distinguish her prose from Lovecraft’s. The issue is exacerbated because little of Sonia’s own work has been published—her other two known fictional efforts, “Four O’Clock” and the play Alcestis both show evidence of being “touched up” by Lovecraft.  Joshi in volume 4 of the variorum edition of the collected fiction of H. P. Lovecraft notes: “One supposes that Lovecraft retained a certain amount of prose by Greene.” Her image of the moon-path in particular is a recurring motif:

It was in the twilight, when grey sea-birds hovered low near the shore and a rising moon began to make a glittering path across the waters. The scene is important to remember, for every impression counts. On the beach were several strollers and a few late bathers; stragglers from the distant cottage colony that rose modestly on a green hill to the north, or from the adjacent cliff-perched Inn whose imposing towers proclaimed its allegiance to wealth and grandeur. […]

Minutes seemed lengthened into hours, and still that human snake of swaying torsos was seen above the fast rising tide. rhythmically it undulated; slowly, horribly, with the seal of doom upon it. thicker clouds now passed over the ascending moon, and the glittering path on the waters faded nearly out. […]

There was no line of bobbing heads now. The waters were calm and deserted, and broken only by the fading ripples of what seemed to be a whirlpool far out in the path of the moonlight whence the strange cry had first come. But as I looked along that treacherous lane of silvery sheen, with fancy fevered and senses overwrought, there trickled upon my ears from some abysmal sunken waste the faint and sinister echoes of a laugh.
—Greene & Lovecraft, “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”

It is an atypical tale by Lovecraft’s standards, much like his earlier collaborations “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) with Winifred Virginia Jackson. Like those stories, it is not a Mythos tale per se, although it seems likely that Lovecraft is behind the name of “Capt. Orne,” which is the name of one of the families he would later associate with Innsmouth. It has more plot than those dream-tales. The mocking laughter at the end and the strange inevitability of the victims’ doom is closer to a conte cruel than Lovecraft’s other efforts…but the real difference between this collaboration and previous efforts is its fate.

The story was written in 1922, during or shortly after the Magnolia visit (26 June – 5 July); and Lovecraft wrote on 11 Sep 1922 that at a party attended by several amateur journalism folk:

I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Greene read her “Four o’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—Lovecraft to Anne Gamwell, 9-11 Sep 1922, Letters from New York 21

However, in March 1923 a new pulp appeared on the stands: Weird Tales. Lovecraft successfully submitted several stories to this magazine—including “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared as “The Invisible Monster” by Sonia H. Greene in the November 1923 issue. This was, then, Lovecraft’s first commercial collaboration, and Sonia’s only professional publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime.

This is one of the stories that marked the transition from Lovecraft as an amateur to a professional writer—and perhaps it is notable that it was Sonia who partnered with him in that, as she did later in their brief marriage. She was in many ways the catalyst for bringing Lovecraft to New York, which while painful for the man from Providence also led to much personal growth.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Crawling Chaos” (1921) by Winifred Virginia Jackson & H. P. Lovecraft

The “Elizabeth Berkeley” of “The Crawling Chaos” is Winifred Virginia Jackson—a now fairly well known poetess, formerly active in amateur journalism. The sketch (it is scarcely a story) is based on a curious dream of hers—which formed a sort of continuation of a previous dream of my own which I had related to her. I put the whole business in my own language, & tacked on a sort of aftermath in the Dunsanian style—for the thing dates from my most intensively Dunsanian period. It was my second & final collaboration with Miss Jackson, the first being “The Green Meadow” […] I took the title C. C. from my Nyarlathotep sketch (now repudiated) because I liked the sound of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 191

In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jordan was an active contributor to amateur journalism, and had been associated with H. P. Lovecraft in that regard for some years. Lovecraft published her “Song of the North Wind” in his own amateur journal, The Conservative (vol. I, no. IV, 1916); Lovecraft may have had a hand in revising this and subsequent poems of hers in his amateur journals.

In the following years they would share editorial duties on amateur journals, and struck up a correspondence which led to two prose collaborations: “The Green Meadow” (eventually published in The Vagrant, Spring 1927) and “The Crawling Chaos” (The United Co-operative, Apr 1921). Both used pseudonyms for these stories: Jordan was “Elizabeth Berkeley,” and Lovecraft was “Lewis Theobald, Jun.” Despite the pseudonyms, the writing team was apparently an open secret; Lovecraft’s friend Alfred Galpin identified them by name in a review of the story in The United Amateur (Nov 1921).

Lovecraft describes the process of their collaboration in some subsequent letters:

Of genuinely fantastic dreamers, I have discovered but one in amateurdom—this being Mrs. Jordan. I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jordanian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, & which I am some time going to weave into a horror story, as I did “The Green Meadow” dream of earlier state, which I think I once hewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mind did not extend o far. It was only when I had relate my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. […] The more recent Jordan dream is very vivid, but peters out miserably. I shall use it only as far the point where the narrator reaches the palm tree. The narrator will be a neurotic youth of the Roderick Usher type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 Nov 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 190

The enclosed fragment of a Jacksonian letter, written late 1918 or early 1919, is the nucleus of the story. As you will perceive, the whole bizarre setting comes from an actual dream of the poetess whilst in the clutches of influenza. This element of illness may account for much of the fantastic colouring, though in actual truth no drug was administered. I have, I think, mentioned before, that the genius of W> V. J. can produce hideous conceptions far outdoing any of mine, and remaining ineffective solely because of their creator’s singular helplessness in prose.  […] I kept this dream outline a long time without utilising it—for being basically egotistical, I put mine own work first. Finally, last December, the authoress became impatient about it, so I threw the story together in a hurry. The colouring impressed me as opiate, so I supplies the dopy prologue. Then in analysing the nature of the dream, I found that the dominant points were a hellish pounding and an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Using these two latter “starters”, the denouement was fairly inevitable tome; so that although everything after the ninth line of page five in the printed version is my own, it is only broadly so; the impulse having been supplied by the original data. When I sent the finished story to W. V. J. I was amused by her idea that I must have actually seen the same supernal sights that he saw in the dream. Her overpowering imagination, conjoined to very scanty scientific attainments, makes her vaguely credulous of the supernatural and she cannot get rid of the notion that there may be an actual region o dream and vision which can be independently and objectively seen by different individuals. In this case she declared that I had described details of the strange interior, and of the architecture of the dream-house, which she had plainly noticed but had not described to me; which to her is proof that a common dream experience must underlie the work of both collaborators. […] frankly, I didn’t think the “Crawling Chaos” would going to make such a hit that anyone would notice it.
H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 108-109

The influenza epidemic swept the globe during the final stages of the First World War in 1918. In 1919 Winifred was living and working in Boston, putting out her own amateur journal The Bonnet. She had married an African-American man, Horace Jordan, and in 1919 they were divorced; she resumed her maiden name of Jackson around 1920 or 1921. It was in this fertile period, 1919-1920, that Lovecraft and Jackson shared their dreams and wrote their collaborationLovecraft borrowing the title from his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (The United Amateur, Nov 1920) which begins “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…”

Wetzel & Everts claim in Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance that at this point Winifred V. Jackson was at this point already the mistress of the famed Black editor and poet William Stanley Braithwaite, they were involved in the foundation of the B. J. Brimmer Publishing Co. in 1921, which Jackson would buy when it went bankrupt in 1927. Braithwaite would publish several of her poems in his anthologies, which would also include poets from the Harlem Renaissance. Lovecraft himself was not aware of Braithwaite’s race until 1918, when he wrote a vituperative, racist diatribe upon discovering the influential editor Braithwaite had been awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (LRK 137-138). Despite this, in 1930 Lovecraft and Braithwaite apparently had a brief correspondence. Jackson herself may have been of mixed race; she was included among “Colored” writers in William Henry Harrison, Jr.’s Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History, and A Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks (1921).

It is an open question as to whether Lovecraft was aware of the details of Winifred’s personal life; he makes no mention of her marriage or any association with Braithwaite in his published letters or his essays “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion Apr 1919) or “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (The United Amateur Mar 1921), although he was, from the name change, apparently very aware of her change in marital status.

Everts & Wetzel record the rumor that Jackson and Lovecraft were romantically inclined, or at least perceived to be by amateur journalism, but there is little evidence for this. The collaborators continued to associate until 1921, after which they appear to have gone their separate ways, Lovecraft rarely referring to Jackson in his subsequent letters—according to Everts, Lovecraft’s wife Sonia H. Greene would claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”

The speculation of an personal relationship between Jackson and Lovecraft, especially given his racism and her interracial marriage, tends to draw attention away from “The Crawling Chaos” as a work of fiction. Despite the title, the work does not feature Nyarlathotep and has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s Mythos. In the context that Lovecraft gives for Jackson’s portion it is possible to see there an echo of the plague that swept the world in 1918:

Of the future I had no heed; to escape, whether by cure, unconsciousness, or death, was all that concerned me. I was partly delirious, so that it is hard to place the exact moment of transition, but I think the effect must have begun shortly before the pounding ceased to be painful. […] The sensation of falling, curiously dissociated from the idea of gravity or direction, was paramount; though there was a subsidiary impression of unseen throngs in incalculable profusion, throngs of infinitely diverse nature, but all more or less related to me. Sometimes it seemed less as though I were falling, than as though the universe or the ages were falling past me. Suddenly my pain ceased, and I began to associate the pounding with an external rather than internal force. The falling had ceased also, giving place to a sensation of uneasy, temporary rest; and when I listened closely, I fancied the pounding was that of the vast, inscrutable sea as its sinister, colossal breakers lacerated some desolate shore after a storm of titanic magnitude. Then I opened my eyes.

If there is an image from the dream-portion that stands out, however, it is this:

Almost at the limit of vision was a colossal palm tree which seemed to fascinate and beckon me.

Palm trees are not normal for Massachusetts. It is an artifact of the exotic and unreal, intruding on the familiar. The palm tree, as much as anything, says that the narrator is in a different place from the one they know. It is the kind of image that might occur in a fever dream, the out-of-place element excepted through dream-logic.

The origin of the story in a dream echoed Lovecraft’s other collaboration from this period, “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts, and several of Lovecraft’s own tales that had their origins in dreams and nightmares; they parallel his fascination with Dunsany’s dreamland in “Idle Days on the Yann.” It was a period when Lovecraft, in the throes of amateur journalism, was sharing his dreams with others and putting them into proseand Winifred Virginia Jackson was one of those who shared their dreams with Lovecraft.

After her association with Lovecraft ended in 1921, Jackson continued to pursue her own writing and publishing, although this resulted in only two books: Backwoods; Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Poetry and the Gods” (1920) by Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft

Moon over Japan,
White butterfly moon!
Where the heavy-lidded Buddhas dream
To the sound of the cuckoo’s call. . . .
The white wings of moon-butterflies
Flicker down the streets of the city,
Blushing into silence the useless wicks of round lanterns in the hands of girls.
—Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft, “Poetry & the Gods” (1920)

“Poetry and the Gods” was first published in the United Amateur (Sep 1920). It is a collaborative effort between Anna Helen Crofts and  H. P. Lovecraft (who used the pen-name H. Paget-Lowe). Crofts and Lovecraft were both members and officials of the United Amateur Press Association, which set the stage for their collaboration. Little else is known about the creative affair, however: there are no references to “Poetry and the Gods” or Crofts in any of Lovecraft’s published correspondence; it is included on none of his own lists of his fiction, and was discovered and published by Lovecraft scholar George T. Wetzel in the 1950; in his Collected Essays, Lovecraft mentions Crofts only once, in the editorial “News Notes” (July 1921) (CE1.293):

Miss Anna H. Crofts is taking a summer course at Columbia University, where she is delving deeply into the technical secrets of pedagogy.

Anastasia Helen Crofts was a public school teacher for most of her life, retiring from teaching in 1942; according to “Anna Helen Crofts—The Rest of the Story” she married Joseph B. McCuen and passed away in Williamstown in 1975. “Poetry and the Gods” and another story, “Life” (United Amateur Jun 1921) are her only known published fiction.

The exact contribution of the co-authors to the final product is likewise a matter of speculation, as no manuscript or drafts survive. S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz in An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (209) once conjectured:

Probably the impetus of the story came from Crofts; she may also have written the tidbit of free verse in the story, since HPL despised free verse […] The prose of the rest of the story appears to be HPL’s.

Ken W. Faig, Jr. in “The Strange Story of “Poetry and the Gods'” (PDF) however discovered that the free verse was borrowed from “Sky Lotus” by Elizabeth J. Coatsworth, published in the July 1919 issue of Asia. In Faig’s estimation:

If his coauthoress Miss Crofts was responsible for the initial draft of their collaboration, I suspect that the introductory paragraphs concluding with the citation of the enchanting blank verse are most of what remains of her work. Perhaps the basic idea of the six divine bards encountered in Marcia’s dream and the ending scene with Marcia admiring the work of the latest messenger-poet sent by the Gods were also Crofts’─she may also have chosen the quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. But the richness of classical reference which one finds in the dream sequence certainly owes much to Lovecraft’s collaboration.

Whatever the exact contributions by the respective authors, there is no question that for Lovecraft this was a very unusual story. In the 1919-1920 period he was writing stories like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Tree”—most scholars find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft wrote:

Attired simply, in a low-cut evening dress of black, she appeared outwardly a typical product of modern civilisation; but tonight she felt the immeasurable gulf that separated her soul from all her prosaic surroundings.

Given that Lovecraft is not known elsewhere to describe décolletage, this may be a fair assessment, albeit a superficial one. Certainly the choice of a female protagonist is unusual for Lovecraft, although he would do so again in other stories written in collaboration with female friends and clients, such as “The Curse of Yig” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Much of the mood and ideas expressed in the later part of the piece echo elements of Lovecraft’s own personal philosophy and which echo somewhat his more famous conceptions:

In thy yearning has thou divined what no mortal else, saving only a few whom the world rejects, remembereth: that the Gods were never dead, but only sleeping the sleep and dreaming the dreams of Gods in lotos-filled Hesperian gardens beyond the golden sunset.

This is reminiscent both of Cthulhu (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” /“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and a possible inspiration from reading Lord Dunsany. Yet is it not also appropriate for a young schoolteacher, whose only escape some days from prosaic life might be to dip into Milton and Keats, to dream of old gods and lose herself for a time in poetry? Lovecraft, it appears, could certainly relate to that.

Of their “hidden collaborator” Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth, not much needs be said; the striking imagery of her poetry certainly helps set the tone of the story. The general surmise among scholars is that if the free verse was part of Crofts contribution, so too was her failure to properly cite Coatsworth. Whether Lovecraft ever caught the uncredited quotation is, like much of the story, unknown. Certainly, it is interesting to think that Coatsworth, who is best known for his series of children’s books, inadvertently shared a collaboration with Lovecraft.

“Poetry and the Gods” was not the first time a woman writer would collaborate with Lovecraft, nor the last. It was the first of such collaborative efforts that was published, and in many ways it sets the stage for Lovecraft’s future collaborations, where the exact details of contribution are unknown, and the only thing sure is that on this one, Lovecraft did not go it alone.


Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help with this article.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

“Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” (2016) by Veronica Schanoes

Though I can’t deny that Lovecraft has influenced my work, I couldn’t relate to the exalted place he seemed to occupy, and wondered if the difference could be ascribed to gender. More to the point, I made a sweeping generalization rather off-handedly: “Lovecraft does nothing for me,” I said. “That wasn’t the horror the girls were passing around in fifth grade. V. C. Andrews is to girls what Lovecraft is to boys.”

Of course, I was wrong—plenty of women have found Lovecraft very important indeed—but I don’t think I was entirely wrong.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

The degree to which H. P. Lovecraft has become a character as enthralling to fans as any of his creations is evident in the body of fiction that has developed around him. Works like Grant Morrison’s “Lovecraft in Heaven” (1994) and Alan Moore’s “Recognition” (1995) focus on aspects of his life story—his death by cancer, his syphilitic father—and ruminate and expand on the mind of the man who created Cthulhu. Veronica Schanoes in “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” adds to this body of work. In her own words:

In this piece, I wonder about Lovecraft’s own monstrous generation; about the racist horrors that founded the United States and what they mean to someone who saw himself as an avatar of eighteenth-century America; the horror of the Other that took the form of Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, and what that means to me, a a twenty-first-century Jew in New York City.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

While this is a work of fiction, Schanoes takes her impetus from fact: her building-up of the story piece by piece is done with all the care and attention of a hoax—and indeed, her skill is such that if the initial section (“Monstrous Generation”) was published as non-fiction, it would probably be convincing to many. Victoria Nelson’s essay “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies” (1996) made similar suggestive claims that Lovecraft inherited congenital syphilis from his father—but where Nelson was perhaps unaware that Lovecraft’s medical records indicated he did not have the disease (Price, “Did Lovecraft Have Syphilis?” in Crypt of Cthulhu #53, 1988), Schanoes’ artfully insinuations are a stepping stone to more profound revelations.

The true threat is never external—it’s not the dreadful non-Aryan immigrants flooding into the United States; it’s not the inhuman alien beings, worshipped as gods, who would barely notice humanity as they crushed it. The true threat always comes from the inside, the self rising up beyond all reason, beyond even survival. In the end, the most monstrous growth is always already one’s own.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 465

The great insight that Schanoes shows in this piece is to take the common and oft-repeated themes of Lovecraft’s life and literature and to look at them from another angle. Lovecraft declared, on his return to this city of his birth after failing to make it in New York City, “I Am Providence”—which S. T. Joshi took for the title of his mammoth biography. Yet it is Schanoes, here, who takes Lovecraft literally and digs into the history of old Providence; and nothing gets very old without having a multitude of sins.

I write and publish about Jews. Most of my protagonists, unless otherwise specified, are Ashkenazi Jews. Well, why should the goyim have all the fantastic, the speculative, the future imperfect? My editors have mostly been Jewish, too.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

When addressing Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, Schanoes’ perspective shifts. She addresses the audience directly, personally. Why should she not? Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism is a subject that affects her personally—not so much because he personally can discriminate against her, since he has been safely dead for several decades, but his words and influence still survive as something Schanoes has to deal with.

Which is almost a microcosm of the subject of Lovecraft’s discrimination itself. Why does it matter, when Lovecraft is dead and gone? Because he isn’t gone, not entirely. His work lives on. For those whose grandparents survived the Holocaust—and remembered relatives that would not—Lovecraft’s remarks in the 1920s and 30s carry an edge today that people who cannot relate directly do not feel.

I do not like H. P. Lovecraft, and I doubt he would have liked me.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

It would be unfair to point out gaps in Schanoes’ narrative, argue over her presentation of the facts, or suggest nuance to her conclusions. It would also be missing the point. While she quotes accurately from Lovecraft’s letters and the memoir of his wife (Sonia Haft Greene) about his life, this is still a work of fiction, not a polemic essay or hit piece.

What it is is a reflection of Lovecraft from an angle that readers are not used to seeing. Lovecraft scholars and biographers such as S. T. Joshi have not ignored his anti-semitism in the least—without their work in publishing Lovecraft’s letters, Schanoes would not have had the raw material for her piece—but none of them can present Lovecraft as seen through the eyes of a contemporary Jewish woman. The mirror that Schanoes holds up may be a funhouse one, with its little distortions for rhetorical and narrative effect, but it works precisely because the subject is still recognizable.

Veronica Schanoes’ “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016). It has not yet been reprinted.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner

If you had not used Ms. Lovecraft’s text as the basis for our novel, Fires on the Sea would have languished as unknown as its first authoress. What a loss to us all that would have been!
—Esther M. Friesner, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” in Cthulhu 2000 (1991) 244

The initial premise of “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is designed to knock the steadfast and serious fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos off their rocker: what if one of H. P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts was being re-written and published as a contemporary romance novel, trashy cover and sex scenes and all? For a writer whom many fans had raised up on a pedestal, both in real life and in fiction, the juxtaposition of tone and genres is designed to raise hackles. Then when the knife is firmly inserted, Esther M. Friesner starts to twist it just enough to tickle the funnybone…

There is a fine line between a reference and an in-joke. Readers intimately familiar with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft recognize the reference in the title to “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, and that recognition preps the reader for the story: it helps to establish the world. In-jokes are similar in that they are never explained to the reader; either they get them or they do not. The elaborate riffing on Gnophkehs in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price is an in-joke, only really comprehensible to someone aware of the fan-scholar debate on the subject. While it contains a lot of clever wordplay and humorous imagery and characterization, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is built on Mythos in-jokes, from by-the-way references to various Mythos stories to a groaner of a knock-knock joke from a gang of shoggoths. Yet there is a lot more at work in the story.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” blends fiction and reality: set in a contemporary (1990) world of cappucino machines and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but one where both Lovecraft and his literary creations such as Arkham both coexist. While the former is uncommon, the latter is very typical of a certain type of Mythos fiction. Lovecraft himself would drop references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith into stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; August Derleth would go Lovecraft one better by dropping in references to Lovecraft and the Arkham House collection of his tales next to the Necronomicon. Derleth was not doing this tongue-in-cheek, he was building an idea that Lovecraft had based some of his tales on reality—an idea revisited by later authors such as Robert Bloch in his novel Strange Aeons (1978) and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (2015-2017). Where other authors use that as a jumping-off point to reflect on, revisit, or revise Lovecraft’s fiction, Friesner does it to underline the silliness of the premise, to take off the kid gloves and show nothing is off-limits.

If the gloves are off for Lovecraft, Friesner also isn’t worried about bloodying her knuckles against the cut-throat world of book contracts, agents, and editors, and the whole innate silliness of the romance industry. Most of the jokes made are at the expense of Robin Pennyworth, the sole male reader in a female-dominated book publisher. His awareness of his failure to meet up to 1980s expectations of masculine attitude and behavior, reminiscent (if not so focused on homophobia) of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, is meat for his domineering boss Marybeth Conran, who is quick with a cutting remark like:

If everything Chuckie Ward tells me is true, she’s led a life of such isolation that when you stumbled into her life, no wonder she mistook you for a man.

Sarah Pickman, the object of Robin’s amour and the co-author of Fires of the Sea, is portrayed far more positively than Conranwhose only goal is to rule her department with an iron fist and bind the writers with the worst possible contracts. In many subtle ways, Friesner plays up her parallels with her supposed ancestor H. P. Lovecraftreclusive nature, thriftiness, and the invitation by a romantic partner to New York City all being obvious homages to Lovecraft’s nature and biography.

So too, Friesner has put some effort into the references to the romance novel itself, alluding to characters and scenes that would be appropriate if Lovecraft himself had written an Innsmouth-based romance novel…which does beg the question of whether or not she was aware of previous efforts in this direction. Robert M. Price, writing as “Sally Theobald” (a play on one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms) published an eldritch confessional-style yarn titled “I Wore The Brassiere of Doom” (1986); Brian McNaughton, writing as “Sheena Clayton” had written an Innsmouth-based erotic/romance novel titled Tides of Desire (1983). Price, like Friesner, focused on the silliness of the serious and asexual Lovecraft trying his hand at such an unfamiliar genre; McNaughton was aiming less at humor and more at a serious erotic paranormal romance work (although he was a couple decades early for that particular genre). Both ideas have bones: Edward Lee would revisit the idea of Lovecraft maintaining a sideline in erotic fiction with Trolley No. 1852 (2009)while Friesner was playing the idea for laughs, in the long run it looks like there’s at least some market for those kind of materials.

The topicality of the story might make it something less than classic; its references to late-80s American culture are already dated nearly three decades after its original publication, such as the final whopper:

[…] while I looked and looked for mention of a pace-name you use, consulting the Britannica and the geographical listings in the Unabridged, it only shows up a an adjective. It sounds so familiar. I think I may have heard of a Trump resort located there, but correct me if I’m wrong.

Where is Stygia?

This is at least a more subtle insertion of a Trump reference into Lovecraftiana than Trump Vs. Cthulhu: Two Small Hands, One Big Problem (2018), and is actually a very clever final in-joke referencing the works of Robert E. Howard (who, along with Clark Ashton Smith, get nods in the story). Lovecraft had written in a letter:

There is no such name as Stygia … the adjective Stygian being derived from the name Styx—the River of the Dead. Two-Gun Bob misuses the word-root when he speaks of a country called “Stygia”. Indeed, he takes frequent & unwarranted liberties with classical names ( or variants of names) in devising a nomenclature for his prehistoric world. Price & I have laboured with him in vain on that point.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 28 Sep 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 290

This is Friesner showing her homework and giving the knife one last little twist, this time to Robert E. Howard fans, although her subtle references to Red Sonja owe more to the Marvel comic books or the 1985 film than anything Ms. Cromwell (er, Robert E. Howard) ever wrote.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” was first published in World Fantasy Convention 1990: An H.P. Lovecraft Centenary Celebration (1990), and reprinted in Friesner’s collection It’s Been Fun (1991), the anthologies Cthulhu 2000 (1995) and Cthulhu and the Coeds, or, Kids & Squids (2000); it has also been translated into French as “L’amour est une indicible purulence” and published in Fées & gestes (1998). Her story “The Shunned Trailer” was published in The Cackle of Cthulhu (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

Of Herburt East, who was my lover in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme arousal tinged with terror. This fear-tainted arousal is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Peniskatonic University Medical School in Jerkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly; no less also did our two lean masculine bodies entwined in illicit passion, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the lust is less blinding, and the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—Lula Lisbon (“D. P. Lustcraft”), “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (emphasis mine)

Of Kanye West, who was my friend in college and after he dropped out, I can speak only with extreme sadness. This dysphoria is not due altogether to the sickening manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than twenty years ago, when we were in the first year of our course at the Chicago State University in Illinois. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his musical experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. (Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.) Now that we are no longer friends and the spell is broken, my side of the story can finally be told. The actual pain is far greater now than it was then. Memories and possibilities are ever more melancholic than the realities.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

While many writers have attempted to pastiche or parody the work of H. P. Lovecraft, few writers have gone so far as to take advantage of the fact that many of Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain, so as to directly rewrite, add on to, and edit his text in such a way as to create a new and original work of fiction. Joshua Chaplinsky’s Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) and Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) both take as their source text Lovecraft’s early serial “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), but are set in widely different genres, and the artistic choices that the two writers reflect interestingly both on what they are writing, and how they choose to interpret Lovecraft’s original work.

Chaplinsky’s take on the concept is of a literary mashup, echoing efforts like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The success of the story lies in the careful attention to detail, weaving factual elements of Kanye’s life and attitude into Lovecraft’s prose while keeping the exuberance and hyperbole of both. Kanye West really did drop out of Chicago State University to pursue his music career, so reflecting that aspect of his life in place of Herbert West’s attendance at medical school is both accurate and requires changes to the narrative—but just as much of Kanye’s life is twisted to more closely resemble Herbert’s, the key change being when Kanye decides to use his music to reanimate the dead. The fun of the story is not just in the pastiche of Lovecraft’s prose or the parody of Kanye’s antics, but those occasional perfect moments when the two blend together:

To the vanished Herbert West and to me the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when West muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

To the vanished Kanye West and I the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when Kanye muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, the track wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

Where Kanye requires grafting on considerable material to the original, Lula Lisbon’s homoerotic re-visioning of Lovecraft’s story requires a shift in genre as well as tone. Where Chaplinsky seeks to draw fiction and reality closer together, so the two Wests’ paths coincide at key narrative moments, Lisbon seeks to inject the erotic into the horror narrative—and the key device by which she accomplishes this takes a decidedly more mystical bent:

He revealed to me one night that through his sizable member coursed a most rare and precious gift: his semen was a re-animating solution, blessed through an incident in which a love-smitten demi-goddess had granted an ancestor the power of bestowing immortal life by way of his seed.
—Lula Lisbon, “Herburt East: Refuckinator”

Like many erotic parodies, the focus of this text is often the insertion of an erotic scene not included in the original. This is a practice of some long standing, with examples in the horror literature genre including The Adult Version of Dracula (1970) and The Adult Version of Frankenstein (1970), both by Hal Kantor. Part of the skill of the author is in how these scenes are woven into the narrative; whereas Kanye replaces Herbert West, and the narrative is basically his own retold in the frame of Lovecraft’s prose, Herburt East follows substantially the same plot, only with many homoerotic additions.

Both texts take the opportunity to play on the outrageousness of the original, which is itself a kind of parody of the lurid supernatural thrillers of the period, and written by Lovecraft strictly as a potboiler:

In this enforced, laboured, & artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings & repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 7 Oct 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 219

The serial nature of “Herbert West” possibly makes it more attractive for parody, as the story is broken into distinct episodes which permit changes of scene and characters and keeps up the narrative pace. Certainly both authors were at pains to keep the character of both of the chapter openings and closing—and perhaps surprisingly, both kept in versions of what is probably the most problematic scene in Lovecraft’s story.

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

Few of Lovecraft’s stories have black characters, and this is arguably his most racist depiction of an African-American character, emphasizing the prejudice of the day that black people were quite literally lower on the scale of evolution, closer to apes and gorillas. That such depiction were not uncommon in pulp fiction, such as in Seabury Quinn’s “The Drums of Damballah” (1930) does not excuse it here. The description does serve two important narrative points. The first is to emphasize the physical power of the character, the second is to emphasize the racial prejudice of the unnamed narrator. One of the key moments of this episode in “Herbert West” is that the narrator and West try their reanimation fluid on it an “it was wholly unresponsive to every solution we injected in its black arm; solutions prepared from experience with white specimens only”—in other words, they assume a biological difference in race to be at fault. However, they later discover that the reanimation serum did work (ironically, given Lovecraft’s sentiments in his letters, proving that there is no biochemical difference between white and black people)…but that the subject had also devolved into cannibalism (violence being characteristic of the reanimated, regardless of race).

Lisbon preserves most of Lovecraft’s original text for this episode, with the main interjection being an extended erotic scene between West and the narrator: she chooses to focus on the “fire all six shots of a revolver” from the opening of the episode and counterbalance it with sex ejaculations. Chaplinsky’s take is more baroque; although he retains a surprising amount of the original text, the black boxer is replaced with Biggie Smalls. Both of them retain, substantially unchanged, the final visual of the episode.

For that visitor was neither Italian nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
(text identical in Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator”)

For that visitor was neither forgetful employee nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a bug-eyed, ash-grey apparition, covered with sewage and fecal matter and caked with blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

The repetition of the text is an acknowledgement of the importance of this specific scene, that Lovecraft had captured a powerful visual in the horrible evidence of cannibalism (it being remembered that this was long before zombies craved the flesh of the living in popular fiction). The differences too are telling: in Lovecraft’s original story, there is implicit bias against the ethnic Italians whose child is kidnapped and eaten; Chaplinsky replaces them with studio assistants, which is in its own way a comment (whether intentional or not) on the attitudes toward the lowest-paid members of the production process. Lisbon’s leaving these elements unaddressed feels like a missed opportunity to address some of the subtext or context in Lovecraft’s work—but that may simply be because she was focusing on other aspects.

One aspect that both Chaplinsky and Lisbon both address is the idea of a homosexual reading or subtext to Lovecraft’s original work. “Herbert West” involves the eponymous mad scientist partnered for considerable periods with an unnamed but presumably male associate who narrates the text; this is in a way a direct parallel in many ways to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler Dr. Watson, and their strong homosocial bond is reflected in several of Lovecraft’s other works, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Hound.” Yet to contemporary audiences, such close friendships between men are often misconstrued as having homosexual connotations, as was discussed in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg. Chaplinsky chooses to address this aspect up front, writing in the first paragraph:

Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.

This is neither a confirmation nor a denial, but an aspect of Kanye and the narrator’s relationship which he plays with throughout the story, letting the readers choose how to interpret certain scenes while never explicitly confirming or denying Kanye’s sexual preferences or whether their relationship is intimate. Lisbon chooses to emphasize and make explicit the homoerotic relationship between East and the narrator, and strives to capitalize on aspects of Lovecraft’s text which highlight the intimacy of their relationship. Other writers have made similar, if less overtly erotic, interpretations of Lovecraft’s relationships—The Chronicles of Dr. Herbert West comic book written by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco has the narrator as a woman, in a romantic relationship with West; “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan similarly makes a female of one of the two male characters from “The Hound.”

Neither Lisbon or Chaplinsky were looking to supplant or provide another episode to an existing work, but to re-imagine that work for their own ends, and as far as those aims go, they both succeeded. Lisbon’s expansion of Lovecraft’s narrative is played for laughs as much as titillation, and veers toward the campier end of homoerotic Lovecraftian horror narratives, something in the vein of David J. West. Chaplinsky’s narrative is much more ambitious, but also ultimately much more period-driven: one day, Kanye will die (though probably not by being decapitated by a reanimated Jay-Z), and his star will fade so that the clever pop-culture references will fade.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I

One of the critical attractions of Lovecraft’s work is being in the public domain, where anyone can play with the material. For most pasticheurs and parodists, this does not mean literally rewriting Lovecraft’s plots or recycling large sections of his text—but those are valid creative approaches to the material, and should be understood and appreciated as such. These variations-on-the-text are as much a part of keeping Lovecraft’s work alive and relevant in the present day as any other.

Erotica author Lula Lisbon originally published the episodes of Herburt East under the name “D. P. Lustcraft”, the complete ebook of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) is still available for sale, although Lisbon appears not to have published anything since 2015.

Joshua Chaplinsky originally published Kanye West—Reanimator through Yolo House in 2015. He has since slightly revised and expanded the book, adding a foreword and the story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep in Redhook, Brooklyn” in Kanye West—Reanimator: the Re-Reanimated Edition (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg

The two of them had been journeying across the interminable parched wastes of the Outback for many days now—how many, not even the Elder Gods could tell. They were ambassadors, these two: Their Excellencies Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft of the Kingdom of New Holy His Diabolic England, envoys of his Britannic Majesty Henry VIII to the court of Prester John.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell (1986) 79

Even before he was dead and could not offer any protest, H. P. Lovecraft was represented as a fictionalized version of himself in Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales Sep 1935). Lovecraft even gave his friend permission to kill him off in the story, and returned the favor by killing off a fictional Bloch in “The Haunter of the Dark” (Weird Tales Dec 1935). This began a literary tradition of using Lovecraft and his friends and contemporaries a fictional characters, which continues to this day.

The genre varies from weird fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966) to historical fiction such as Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004) to erotic horror including Edward Lee’s Trolley No. 1852 (2009), but what all of these stories have in common is that the characterization of Lovecraft is informed by what is known of his life and thought, and the same is true for the other historical personages. Robert E. Howard, for example, appears in both Richard Lupoff’s novel Lovecraft’s Book (1985), Rick McCollum’s Ashley Dust (1994), David Barbour’s Shadow’s Bend (2000), and Robert Silverberg’s novella “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986).

The story takes place in the Heroes in Hell shared universe; a series of anthologies such as the Man-Kzin Wars and Thieves’ World where multiple authors write stories in a common setting, usually sticking to their own characters but collaborating to a degree on the development of the common background, and possibly referencing each other’s additions and the events in their stories. The whole concept is similar to how comic book shared universes work, and of course is a somewhat more structured and organized version of how the Cthulhu Mythos came to be. In Heroes in Hell, all the great figures of history go to their infernal rest—so that Cleopatra, Machiavelli, Benito Mussolini, Che Guevara, et al. can all interact. The device which allows the meeting of disparate historical figures is the crucial attraction of the setting, and Silverberg takes advantage of this in his story by having Gilgamesh meet H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

The attraction of placing Lovecraft and Howard together is in large part because they were friends during the 1930s, and experienced a publication boom in the 60s and 70s as their work was printed and reprinted in affordable paperbacks. Though they never met, they carried on an extensive correspondence, much of which has survived and which saw publication, starting with some of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard in the Selected Letters from Arkham House during the 1960s and then more in fanzines, small scholarly journals, and other publications until the full correspondence was finally published as A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in 2009.

In addition to their published letters and fiction, both Lovecraft and Howard received scholarly attention which was largely lacking for their fellow pulp writers—at the time Silverberg was writing “Gilgamesh in the Outback,” he could draw on two biographies written by L. Sprague de Camp: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) and Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, written with Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin). While these biographies were often the standard work on their subjects for several years, both books faced considerable criticism for de Camp’s treatment of his subjects, which often involved a kind of post mortem psychoanalysis. Nor was de Camp alone in such questionable assessments of his subjects:

The article [“The Psychological Conan” by John Strnad] goes in for all the superficial, mechanical application of static psychoanalytic labels, without any dynamic clinical evidence: Conan’s broadsword is, of course, a “standard phallic symbol”, his armor is “an extensive erogenous zone”, he is alleged to suffer from an unconscious “not resolved castration complex”, his attitude towards his companions and women shows “tendencies toward homosexuality”. his investigating and exploring of tombs and secret passages shows a “desire for heterosexual relations.”

Psychoanalysis of living people and of literary figures requires not the labeling with Freudian terms but an interpretation based on concrete data. This article represents a misunderstanding of both psychoanalysis and Conan. Howard and Conan deserves better.
—Frederic Wertham, Amra vol. 2, no. 58 (1973), 12

Other writers did not mince words; Harry Harrison in Great Balls of Fire! An Illustrated History of Sex and Science Fiction (1977) included an entire chapter titled “Is Conan Dating Clark Kent?” and states boldly:

Howard did identify with his hero, Conan, and admitted as much many times. […] I find it hard to agree when [Wertham] insists that this was all done consciously by the author. Conan is a crypto-homosexual and the entire school of sword-and-sorcery reflects this fact. (85)

These particular impressions of Robert E. Howard and his creation Conan, often seen as an alter ego, are important because they provide the context within which Silverberg operated and would have understood the basis for the character he was creating. So as the two pulpsters-turned-ambassadors drive through Hell in a Land Rover, they stop and encounter Gilgamesh—to who Howard has a peculiar reaction:

“By Crom,” he muttered, staring at the giant. “Surely this is Conan of Aquilonia and none other!” He was trembling. He took a lurching step toward the huge man, holding out both his hands in a strange gesture—submission, was it? “Lord Conan?” Howard murmured. “Great king, is it you? Conan? Conan?” And before Lovecraft’s astounded eyes Howard fell to his knees next to the dying beast, and looked up with awe and something like rapture in his eyes at the towering huntsman.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell 84

Gilgamesh is, as the title suggests, the main protagonist and focus of Silverberg’s novella. In choosing the most ancient hero in literature, Silverberg can set Gilgamesh in contrast to all the more recent dead celebrities, letting the king of Uruk express a very different take on death, damnation…and homosocial attitudes. Gilgamesh greatly misses the company of his “brother” Enkidu, a relationship which is presented as strictly non-sexual but also fundamental to both men. It is paralleled, in a way, with the friendship of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—but the latter’s response to Gilgamesh reveals a strange twist in Silverberg’s characterization of Conan’s creator.

Howard’s initial mistake of Gilgamesh for Howard’s own fictional creation Conan the Cimmerian, and the continuing response of Howard to Gilgamesh, highlight some of the sexual interpretations of the Texas pulpster as they existed at the time—and give Silverberg the opportunity to expressly state that Gilgamesh of Uruk is not a homosexual:

And that glow in the fellow’s eyes—what sort of look was that? A look of adoration, almost the sort of look a woman might give a man when she has decided to yield herself utterly to his will.

Gilgamesh had seen such looks aplenty in his day, from women and men both; and he had welcomed them from women, but never from a man. He scowled. What does he think I am? Does he think, as so many have wrongly thought, that because I loved Enkidu with so great a love that I am a man who will embrace a man in the fashion of men and women? Because it was not so. Not even here in Hell is it so, said Gilgamesh to himself. Nor will it ever be. (92)

As Robert E. Howard’s comes face-to-face with an individual that is in many ways the archetype of his most famous hero, he reacts as a fanboy might—and Gilgamesh completely fails to understand the hero-worship for what it is, mistaking it for sexual interest. The strenuousness of the denial, and Gilgamesh’s gauging of Howard’s reaction, both speak to the sexual psychology of the day. Gilgamesh is expressing an attitude of 80s machismo, and the subject of his objections is the creator of a genre of American fantasy which Harry Harrison accused of “crypto-homosexuality” because it commonly glorified the male form—as exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s casting in the lead of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the half-naked, muscled figures that dominated Frank Frazetta’s covers of the Conan paperbacks.

Lovecraft, by contrast, plays the straight man (except when he in is turn is allowed a few moments of exuberance). Gilgamesh’s analysis of him, expressed later, jives strongly with interpretations of Lovecraft in the 80s:

[…] he is weirdly remote and austere, is apparently quite as crazy, but he too give the impression of being at war with himself, int error of allowing any sort of real human feeling to break through the elaborate facade of his mannerisms. The poor fools must have been scared silly when the serving -girls started tripping them and pouring warm milk over them and stroking their bodies. (122)

The creator of Cthulhu’s composure balances out Howard’s burst of eccentricity, and within a few pages everyone is set straight regarding the small error of identity. This does, however, give Howard time for a bit of introspection:

But this other business—this sudden bewildering urge to throw himself at the giant’s feet, to be wept up in his arms, to be crushed in a fierce embrace—

What was that? Where had that come from? By the blazing Heart of Ahriman, what could it mean? (98)

If Gilgamesh’s reaction to the idea of being the subject of homosexual attraction is an expression of 80s masculinity; Howard’s own confusion at feeling homosexual attraction is in turn an expression of a kind of crisis of masculinity verging on homosexual panic. Silverberg’s interpretation of Howard’s character was reinforced by borrowing an episode from Robert E. Howard’s 5 Sep 1928 letter to his friend Harold Preece, as well as referencing other details from Howard’s published correspondence and the sometimes erroneous scholarship. When Silverberg writes:

The desire of men for men was a mark of decadence, of the decline of civilization. He was a man of the frontier, not some feeble limp-wristed sodomite who reveled in filth and wanton evil. If he had never in his short life known a woman’s love, it was for lack of opportunity, not out of a preference for that other shameful kind. (99)

He is not directly quoting any particular passage from Howard’s writings; though the pulpster would write of “decadence,” he never spoke directly of male homosexuality in his published letters. The idea that Howard died a virgin is an idea promoted in de Camp’s biography:

While it is not impossible that, on some unaccompanied visit to Brownwood, his friends there took him to “Sal’s House,” as one of the the three local whorehouses was called, the weight of such evidence as we have makes it more than likely that he died without ever having enjoyed the pleasures of sex.
Dark Valley Destiny 140

While Howard never explicitly mentions any sexual encounter in his letters (and why would he?), there is circumstantial evidence to suggest he did in fact make use of prostitutes, so the de Camps were likely wrong on that score—but the facts of the matter are less important than the context: Silverberg, based on the then-current scholarship, was trying his best to build the character of Howard for his story.

Between Gilgamesh’s reaction and Howard’s, the portrayal of homosexuality in the story is not a positive one. It is rather the spectre of homosexuality which haunts the characters in this story, and Gilgamesh and Howard alternately deny and deride it in their internal monologues. For men so concerned with their masculine identities, the prospect of not being or being perceived as strictly heterosexual is a considerably upsetting prospect to both men—and Howard for his part immediately works to suppress these unfamiliar emotions, falling straight into the Kübler-Ross model.

While the characterization of homosexuality and masculinity might strike many contemporary readers as awkward or regressive, it is probably more accurate to say that it was period-appropriate. Silverberg has, throughout a long career in science fiction, addressed issues of gender and homosexuality in many different stories, notably Son of Man (1971), and popular attitudes on homosexuality have shifted dramatically over the course of his writing career. “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is an artifact of how homosexuality and masculinity were viewed in the 1980s, and this is very much expressed in the finale:

She-it, Howard though. A man don’t cry. Especially in front of other men.

He turned away, into the wind, so Lovecraft could not see his face.

“Bob? Bob?”

She-it, Howard thought again. And he let the tears come.  (137)

The fragile masculinity expressed by the statement that “a man don’t cry” is as close to the the fundamental philosophy of Silverberg’s story as anything else. Is Howard-the-character not a man just because he lets out a few tears? Is he less of a man for having felt an homoerotic attraction to Gilgamesh?

To say that this is a story about men and of men is accurate: aside from a few unnamed handmaidens, there are no female characters that appear on the page, though Queen Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn are mentioned, they are not present. All of the major and minor characters are men, and this story is about their relationships with each other. It is a story fundamentally steeped in men desiring the friendship of other men, but profoundly uncomfortable and unwilling to consider the implications of a sexual dimension to that friendship—not for any pressing religious reason (they’re already in hell), or any social more (nobody besides Gilgamesh or Howard ever bring homosexuality up), but simply as an internal struggle.

Readers might reflect on how the characters of Lovecraft, Howard, and the rest reflect on the real men that inspired them. As detailed in “Great Phallic Monoliths Lovecraft and Sexuality”, literary interpretations may be valid even if the facts don’t support them—readers upset that the Robert E. Howard of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is a 1 instead of a 0 on the Kinsey Scale can be reassured that this is just fiction, and at that fiction based upon “scholarship” from 30-40 years ago which misapplied Freudian analysis. Readers that are open to the a less unilaterally heterosexual Howard are free to run with it. As far as the literary game goes, the characterization of historical persons is free game, so long as they remain identifiable to the audience and fit the needs of the story.

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” was first published in Rebels in Hell (1986) and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (July 1986); Silverberg won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1987. It was reprinted in The New Hugo Winners, Volume II (1992), Novel Ideas: Fantasy (2006), and The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six: Multiples 1983-1987 (2011). Silverberg wrote two sequels, “The Fascination of the Abomination” in Angels in Hell (1987) and “Gilgamesh in Uruk” in War in Hell (1988), which were later stripped of the Heroes in Hell-specific setting material combined into the novel To The Land of the Living (1989). Lovecraft and Howard do not appear in the later stories.

 


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”

Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors by noted Lovecraft scholar Kenneth W. Faig Jr. is very much in the vein of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price in that it is a piece of fictional scholarship as much as anything else. The four stories in the collection are “what ifs?,” imagining chapters of Lovecraft’s life that could have been, as discovered some decades later by dedicated scholars like Faig. The stories are all generally plausible, and present less a “what might have been” than an alternate viewpoint on their subject—H. P. Lovecraft.

Not many now living will recall the Egyptian vogue of the eighteen-seventies…fifty years before King Tut and his curse fixed their hold upon the popular imagination…but a few of our older citizen will recall the famous Black or Nigger Hotep who held the audiences of at Olney’s Opera House spellbound with his Egyptian regalia and bizarre contraptions in those day. How Charles Wilson Hodap became the Black Hotep is a story which I cannot relate to you […]
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

The third tale recounts the discovery and tracking-down of biographical information of Charles Wilson Hodap, an African-American stage magician who performed under the title “Black Hotep,” with an Egyptian theme. The narrator is ostensibly David Parkes Boynton, a (fictional) very early and enthusiastic Lovecraft collector, but this is really a device of Faig’s. The narrative is primarily a combination of correspondence and interviews, with a little exposition mixed in. More than enough for readers to follow the chain of evidence as Boynton investigates whether it was this “Black Hotep” that inspired H. P. Lovecraft to create Nyarlathotep.

Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most ambiguous creations. In the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep” and sonnet XXI of the “Fungi from Yuggoth,” Nyarlathotep is a kind of showman-prophet of doom; in “The Rats in the Walls” he is a “mad, faceless god” at Earth’s center; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is the “soul and messenger of the Outer Gods,” the crawling chaos; in “The Dreams in the Witch House” he is one with the Black Man of the Witch Cult; and he is mentioned in passing in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Mound,” and “The Last Test” as part of the Mythos. Other writers would expand considerably on Nyarlathotep, explaining away his varied appearances as avatars or “masks,” but the initial presentation that many readers receive of Nyarlathotep from Lovecraft’s stories is that of a dark-skinned man, at least when the crawling chaos is in human form:

And at the last from inner Egypt came
The strange dark One to whom the fellahs bowed;
Silent and lean and cryptically proud,
And wrapped in fabrics red as sunset flame.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Fungi From Yuggoth Sonnet XXI. Nyarlathotep”

Then down the wide lane betwixt the two columns a lone figure strode; a tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique Pharaoh, gay with prismatic robes and crowned with a golden pshent that glowed with inherent light. Close up to Carter strode that regal figure; whose proud carriage and swart features had in them the fascination of a dark god or fallen archangel, and around whose eyes there lurked the languid sparkle of capricious humour.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The evilly grinning beldame still clutched him, and beyond the table stood a figure he had never seen before—a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features; wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

“Black” or “svart” in this context does not necessarily mean that Nyarlathotep’s human form took on the appearance of sub-Saharan African or African-American, and Lovecraft’s description in “The Dreams in the Witch House” in particular is explicitly not, and with the rest of the apparatus of the witch-cult inspired by Margaret Murray’The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), where the Devil is often described as appearing dressed in black clothing, and with cloven hooves; a “black man” connected with witchcraft also appears in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which influenced Lovecraft.

Whether or not Nyarlathotep’s human appearance is “black” (or Arabic, or anything else) in the sense of race is largely irrelevant to the plot of the stories he appears in, though in the poems it adds an exotic element to his history, a suggestion of otherness. But when readers are aware of Lovecraft’s prejudice against black people, they may interpret the stories differently—and later writers and artists are forced to consider the issue of how to depict Nyarlathotep, and in human form that at least implicitly means discussing the physical features associated with race—even Lovecraft feels the need to specify the Black Man of the Witch Cult is “not Negroid.” Adding a racial dimension to the characterization means addressing racial prejudice. Is Nyarlathotep an example of Lovecraft’s racism?

Probably not—at least, there is no indication in Lovecraft’s letters that he ever intended such a characterization of the crawling chaos—but such issues must underlie and inform Faig’s narrative of Charles Wilson Hodap. Boynton detective work slowly unveils more information about the life of this African-American entertainer, and finally hit upon the crucial connection with a young, enthusiastic audience: a six-year old Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here, Boynton believes he has found the inspiration for at least one of Lovecraft’s iconic creations: a hardworking, kindly black entertainer.

The conceit works to the extant that it is a neat solution; Faig, being the Lovecraft scholar her is, ties it in with Lovecraft’s life and the history of Providence. It is an ultimately believable and perhaps a touch mundane revelation, one which requires no grimoires or neuroses. The final pages detail a scholar’s best wishes for such a discovery, with articles published, associated materials related to Hodap’s life found and deposited with an appropriate library, and funds raised to place a proper marker on the graves of Hodap and his wife. It is as warm and fuzzy an ending as one might hope for in such a story.

The shadow of Lovecraft’s racism remains, hovering over the narrative, and the question to ask is: is Faig attempting to downplay or whitewash Lovecraft’s racism? Certainly he is playing with the idea that Nyarlathotep as conceived by a young Lovecraft was “black” in a racial sense. The text, aside from a couple incidents of “Nigger Hotep” is markedly limited in its depiction of period racism.

Accompanying the advertisement was a line drawing of Hotep himself, sketched against a background of a fantastic array of mirrors and strange-looking apparatus. Naked from the waist up, Hotep’s flesh was inked in the blackest ebony, forming a stark contrast with the white of the strange-looking turban which crowned his head and the loose, skirt-like garment which fell from his waist. From hi features, so far as I could tell from the drawing, I judged him to be a Negro of the purest Nubian type.
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

Young Lovecraft himself never appears on the page to give a personal opinion. The idea of a positive relationship with an African-American is probably out of context for most readers aware of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but not necessarily inaccurate to life. If it were true—if Black Hotep had existed and inspired Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep—would that change anything of the readers’ opinions of Lovecraft himself? Would it inform or influence how they viewed appearances of Nyarlathotep when they read his stories again, seeing the vaguely sinister figure in a more theatrical bent, like William Marshall in Blacula?

Without addressing these subjects directly, Faig’s tale is in many ways a reflection on the nature of Nyarlathotep, H. P. Lovecraft, and the readers’ relationship with both. Just as readers’ interpretation of Nyarlathotep can shift when they are aware of Lovecraft’s racism, so can readers be made to question that interpretation by presenting a kind of counter-example: a Lovecraft who instead of being afraid of black people, found inspiration in at least one black entertainer, whose legacy lives on through his work.

Of course, Charles Wilson Hodap never existed; Faig’s story is a work of fiction, and Lovecraft scholars have posited other origins for Nyarlathotep. Is this then a story of an alternate timeline, or an idealized timeline? This kind of biographical fiction focused around Lovecraft or other authors is its own kind of metafictional biography, perhaps best represented by works like Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004).

It does not seek to rewrite the past, exactly: the Lovecraft who encounters Faig’s Black Hotep is still presumably the Lovecraft that grows up to argue for the necessity of segregation and the biological inferiority of black people. Yet it present an example of an African-American that had a positive, and perhaps essential, effect on Lovecraft—and while that may not counterbalance everything Lovecraft wrote and said on the subject of race, it is difficult not to see it as inviting reflection along those lines.

The Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors were first published from 1979 to 1988 in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association. They were collected in a limited edition and published by Moshassuck Pres in 1989, and then revised and published by Necronomicon Press in 1995. Faig has published numerous other works about Lovecraft and the Mythos.

 


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is despite her mea culpas perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—the Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm, and developed a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to his Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters, and she her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)